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The decision by trade union federations to withdraw from the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC) is a major setback at a time when there needs to be more focus on getting the country back on an even keel to build resilience from the losses inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tomorrow, the fifth anniversary of the NTAC’s establishment would have marked the longest-running effort attempt at tripartism in a country where labour, business and government have seldom had cordial relationships.

When it was launched on March 15, 2016, its very laudable terms of reference included a review of sustainable national development goals, job creation, a greater focus on the needs of the poor, socially displaced and vulnerable and maintaining industrial peace and harmony.

These are very much in line with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda which has four pillars—employment creation, social protection, rights at work, and social dialogue.

Decent work, as defined by the ILO “involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all.”

These all seem to be important prerequisites for success in the uncharted post-COVID world that T&T will soon have to navigate.

But they are aspirations that have been halted by last week’s announcement by the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM), National Trade Union Centre (NATUC), and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITUN) that they will no longer participate in the NTAC.

The trade union federations have dismissed the effort at tripartism as, to quote JTUM leader Ancel Roget, a “surreptitious plan to silence, and get rid of trade union movements.”

Their abrupt mass exit has left unfinished work on amendments to the Industrial Relations Act and the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act, the Workmen’s Compensation Act, and the development of a COVID-19 public-sector workplace policy.

Also left hanging at an extremely critical time is the establishment of an independent committee to resolve outstanding public-sector negotiations.

In terms of timing, the trade union groups have opted to set aside all of the important work they did as part of the NTAC just when the country needs to rise to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as develop different approaches to long-standing issues.

In a report late last year, the ILO noted the “unprecedented blow” COVID-19 has dealt to economies and labour markets across Latin America and the Caribbean, leading to the biggest contraction in the region in the last 100 years.

Millions of jobs have been lost and T&T, like other countries in the region, now needs to embark on policies geared at building production capacity and increasing competitiveness, among other objectives for economic revitalisation.

As they mobilise to tackle a range of industrial relations issues, the trade union federations have agreed to set aside ideological difference and join forces.

However, as they make their latest attempt at labour unity, JTUN, NATUC and FITUN must carefully consider how the workers they represent will be hard hit if there are any missteps on the difficult road ahead.

They might want to look again at the tripartite approach.